May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this week Health Matters is discussing substance abuse.
“Heroin is something that has become a national epidemic,” said Dr. Thad Ulzen with University Medical Center. “It’s become much easier. It costs the people who make the drugs much less to make them, and so a very strong narcotic like heroin is very cheaply and easily available to people who don’t even have a whole lot of money.”
Addictions affect everyone differently, Ulzen said. Some people are more likely to become addicted, thanks to genetics, mental health problems or other issues.
Ulzen said that, for example, four people go out drinking. Three of the four stop after one or two drinks, but one person can’t help but continue drinking.
It’s generally impossible to tell who’s predisposed to addiction issues, Ulzen said. But some people have what’s called an OPRM gene — a gene associated with an increased predisposition to drug addictions. Once they start, they can’t stop, Ulzen said.
“There’s a very large part of it that’s genetic vulnerability,” Ulzen said. “And then you have environmental pressures like peer pressure, or reactions to life events and things like this that all work together to form a deadly mix.”
Mental illnesses have a stigma around them, Ulzen said, but the stigma around substance abuse is even stronger.
“People feel there is a choice involved,” Ulzen said. “And that’s really misplaced because when people who are addicted to substances take substances, it actually alters their brains in ways it might not alter the brain of someone who’s not predisposed to addiction.”
It’s a huge burden on families and society, but it’s a burden that could be largely prevented with better health care for those who need it.
“I don’t know that we ever as a society have spent enough on mental illness or substance abuse, because the disease burden from substance abuse is quite high,” Ulzen said. We’re really not spending as much as we should for the kind of burden that it carries.”
Ulzen said it’s important to know substance abuse is a disease, just like cancer. While some substance abusers come into their addiction as adults, many first flirt with it as adolescents.
Instead of telling high-schoolers and college students about the dangers of drugs, education efforts should be starting in elementary school, Ulzen said.